Chinese names too difficult for Americans to handle

Bizarre.

A North Texas legislator during House testimony on voter identification legislation said Asian-descent voters should adopt names that are “easier for Americans to deal with.”

The comments caused the Texas Democratic Party on Wednesday to demand an apology from state Rep. Betty Brown, R-Terrell. But a spokesman for Brown said her comments were only an attempt to overcome problems with identifying Asian names for voting purposes. […] “Rather than everyone here having to learn Chinese — I understand it’s a rather difficult language — do you think that it would behoove you and your citizens to adopt a name that we could deal with more readily here?” Brown said.

Matthew Yglesias responds:

As it happens, it seems to me that people of Chinese ancestry tend to have very “easy” names as things stand—lots of monosyllables and so forth. The big culprits in terms of “difficult” names, I would say, are Eastern Europeans, South Asians, upper-class WASPs, and of course those of us with Galician names like “Yglesias” that combined foreign origin with unorthodox spelling.

Which do you find easier “to deal with,” Li or Wu, or Yglesias?

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 64 Comments

Some legislation that state and federal legislatures try to pass are just recockulous… this is a perfect example.

April 10, 2009 @ 12:18 am | Comment

I couldn’t find this when I posted a few minutes ago, but this website is dedicated to rediculous laws and legislation in the US State and Federal governments.

http://www.dumblaws.com/

April 10, 2009 @ 12:29 am | Comment

I think the Romanized Chinese names can be problematic but mainly due to name collisions – different in Chinese but the same in English letters.

Especially for people with single character given names. For instance the name Chen Hong can represent a lot of people, with given name as 红,洪,宏,虹,鸿,弘,泓.

April 10, 2009 @ 12:41 am | Comment

I attended a meeting earlier today, and one of the participants was a lady called Isabella Ignatowicz-Grzmekska…

April 10, 2009 @ 12:41 am | Comment

Yglesias? What is the problem with Yglesias? By the way it should be spelled Iglesias. ;-)

And not, is not Galician name but Castilian (a.k.a Spanish for the outside world..)

Maybe he didnt like Julio Iglesias or Enrique Iglesias music…. Don’t blame them at all for that.

Someone can confirm me if Li name is as common as Schmitt?

April 10, 2009 @ 1:04 am | Comment

Tom: I think the Romanized Chinese names can be problematic but mainly due to name collisions – different in Chinese but the same in English letters.

How is this problematic for English speakers? No matter how you cut it, a one-syllable surname like Chen or Wang is a whole lot easier than Tchaikovsky or Wittgenstein. The one complication I can see re the perverse spelling of Hong Kong and Taiwanese names that complicate things with surnames such as Wong and Chan (HK), or Tsai and Hsien (TW).

April 10, 2009 @ 2:04 am | Comment

So many things wrong with the thinking in this:

A North Texas legislator during House testimony on voter identification legislation said Asian-descent voters should adopt names that are “easier for Americans to deal with.”
#####PROBLEM #1-US citizens love to claim to be American, but America is a continent designation, not a country, per se. Candians are Americans, as are Mexicans (Mexico being in North America), as are all the people who live in Central America & South America.
#####PROBLEM #2-If the people of Asian decent are voting, then for the sake of argument we can assume they are citizens. So the insult is not only to the Asian names, but to the idea that real “citizens” are of European descent, or at least not Asian descent. I mean, the logic is just MISSING, but the prejudice is certainly not!

The comments caused the Texas Democratic Party on Wednesday to demand an apology from state Rep. Betty Brown, R-Terrell. But a spokesman for Brown said her comments were only an attempt to overcome problems with identifying Asian names for voting purposes. […] “Rather than everyone here having to learn Chinese — I understand it’s a rather difficult language — do you think that it would behoove you and your citizens to adopt a name that we could deal with more readily here?” Brown said.
#####PROBLEM #3-Everyone SHOULD learn Chinese, and Spanish, and a few other languages. It’s a sign of intelligence.
#####PROBLEM #4-Doesn’t Texas have a voter ID card system that would eliminate the problem?

April 10, 2009 @ 2:40 am | Comment

hm, i’m wondering if this guy was mostly talking about first names, rather than last names? not that it makes much difference – it’s a completely ridiculous thing to be saying, especially in this day and age, when we’re told to embrace our ethnic backgrounds (in the more civilized states, anyway) – but at least i could see there where he’s coming from…

April 10, 2009 @ 3:35 am | Comment

Perhaps its the ACCURACY of the romanization? At least in the written form.
Remember Peiping, Peking, Beijing?

April 10, 2009 @ 4:59 am | Comment

Do not know about Schmitt. But Li is probably the 2nd or 3rd most popular family name in China.

April 10, 2009 @ 5:15 am | Comment

Can’t believe somebody had a problem with Chinese names. They are the easiest in the world. Along with East Europeans, South Asians should be the worst. Try saying, Palaniappan Chidambaram, the current Finance Minister of India.

April 10, 2009 @ 6:19 am | Comment

What about some of those good ol’ Brit names like Cholmondeley, Llewellyn or McArse-Trumpet?

Wrap your laughing gear around those Rep. Brown.

April 10, 2009 @ 7:52 am | Comment

Well…Since our Congressmen don’t read legislation or follow the Constitution, I suppose that they have to fill their time some way?

http://dprogram.net/2009/04/09/video-ron-paul-explains-how-washington-works-to-students/

April 10, 2009 @ 8:19 am | Comment

Being a former POSSE Scholar, I can identify with the problems that some Americans have with pronouncing names.

http://www.possefoundation.org/

April 10, 2009 @ 8:30 am | Comment

Speaking of the difficulty that some Americans have with pronouncing names and words, does anyone happen to know anything about Bill Clinton’s “Global Posse Initiative”? Thanks.

http://www.possefoundation.org/news-events/detail/bill-clinton-taps-posse-for-global-initiative1/

April 10, 2009 @ 8:45 am | Comment

It depends on what you meant by “to deal with”. If a name is one of the identifier of the person, so that we can tell them apart, Chinese names are much more difficult to deal with, because too many of them have the same name. If the name is only used to address the person verbally, Yglesias is more difficult.

And the issue here is voting. How can you tell which Wu voted and which haven’t. In a political system where only selected few can vote, Wu or Li is not a problem. In a system where you have hundreds of millions are voting, you bet it is.

April 10, 2009 @ 8:58 am | Comment

I think Chinese given names like Xiaoping, Xuexie and etc, may seem difficult for Westerners to separate the whole into two syllables. People in Taiwan use a hyphen to separate syllables, but personally I like without hyphen.

Another interesting thing about name is that it is popular for Chinese to adopt an English first name like Tom or John, while the Indians who are much more steeped in English never uses English first name. I have heard that adopting an English first name indicates the person is a Christian in Indian.

April 10, 2009 @ 9:12 am | Comment

I once knew a Chinese bloke named “Gang Wen”.

Everybody called him “Gang Men”.

April 10, 2009 @ 9:14 am | Comment

The sad thing is, most Chinese people I know who are in regular contact with foreigners actually “do” adopt western names, under the mistaken impression that it would be easier for white people. At work this makes for an interesting situation, as our IT database contains only their real names, but the business cards often contain their adopted names, and the result is I have difficulty finding them later. You end up having to learn both, and then worrying that some people may be insulted if you use the Chinese name instead of the western name to address them.

April 10, 2009 @ 9:31 am | Comment

boo, I find the same thing all the time. Even my Chinese wife first introduced herself to me as Angela. That lasted for about 3 seconds. Then I asked her what her “real” (Chinese) name was and have delighted in saying her name, Zeng Zeng, ever since. I make it habit to let my new Chinese friends know that their names are not unpronounceable and that their names are a valuable part of who they are. I feel that if I don’t at least make real effort to say their names that they woudn’t even bother to continue to talk to me.

April 10, 2009 @ 11:20 am | Comment

Do people on this board honestly think the average Westerner can correctly pronounce Chinese names with the zh-, c-, z-, or x- sounds? My girlfriend’s surname is Zhang, and I don’t think she ever encountered anyone during her 4 years in the U.S. who could pronounce it correctly from reading it.

April 10, 2009 @ 1:18 pm | Comment

Truth: Whenever you ask some Chinese whether you have correctly pronounced his/her Chinese name and he/she replied “yes”. That’s just a big fat lie because you have most definitely just butchered the name.

April 10, 2009 @ 1:37 pm | Comment

Falen, that’s, er, a wild exaggeration. I know some Americans who speak damn fine Chinese (and yeah, I can tell the difference). My Chinese isn’t great but my pronunciation ain’t bad, and I’ll make you a bet that I can pronounce someone’s Chinese name just fine, thank you very much.

April 10, 2009 @ 2:05 pm | Comment

“I don’t think she ever encountered anyone during her 4 years in the U.S. who could pronounce it correctly from reading it.”
I’m firmly of the opinion that Chinese pinyin as taught on the Mainland and now forced upon the rest of the world is not really that great. Or to put it more directly, it sucks. I mean, if the idea is to Romanize the sounds so that people can supposedly read and pronounce them, was “Zh” really the best way to romanize that sound at the beginning of “Zhang”? I’m certainly not a leading linguist or anything like that, but even at my admittedly kindergarten level, sticking a Z and an H together and then thinking that someone could read it strikes me as a bit far-fetched. Even with the example of “Li,” I often wonder, what was so wrong with “Lee”? And this is not solely the case with Mandarin: Mainland romanizations of Cantonese are equally idiotic and confusing. Might as well turn my name “Kevin” into “Ghebveen” or something like that and then expect people to be able to read it; but thankfully I’m not a government, so I can’t just come up with my own silly forms of romanization.

April 10, 2009 @ 2:21 pm | Comment

I kinda have to disagree on the Pinyin, Kevin. The thing is, particularly with the consonant sounds, they aren’t the same as English. So I think the advantage of Pinyin is, you associate sounds that aren’t the same with letters that don’t quite mean what we are used to them meaning. I mean, “q” in Pinyin is not the same as “Ch.” Whereas once you know how the Pinyin is pronounced, it’s very clear what the difference between “q” and “ch” is.

I had a friend who made that argument years ago, when he was taking a class that used Pinyin, and my class used Yale, and I argued for the superiority of Yale. But after learning Pinyin, I’ve come around to the view that he was right.

April 10, 2009 @ 2:38 pm | Comment

I’m not sure pronunciation is such an issue. In real life ;) I have a slavic name, which is pronounced in a fairly consistent anglicized way in the US, and in a fairly consistent Japanized way in Japan, and I don’t mind at all.

April 10, 2009 @ 2:56 pm | Comment

Je suis le seul homme dans le monde à avoir mon nom! et jamais, jamais je n’ai entendu quelqu’un le prononcer d’une façon correcte à l’extérieur de mon pays.

Pourtant je suis tout à fait d’accord avec Boo, ça n’a pas vraiment beaucoup d’importance…

April 10, 2009 @ 3:14 pm | Comment

Let me put this as plainly as possible:

I hate Chinese people thinking that they have to adopt English names for people to be able to remember their names, and I think the companies that force them to do this are a pack of wankers. One company I worked for forced all of their office staff (numbering in the thousands) at their Shenzhen office to adopt English names “because it will make it easier for foreigners”, despite the fact that the majority of them did not work with foreigners. Not only that, but it led to much confusion on my part as I had to switch from the names which I had learned to a set of exceedingly samey/bizarre English names.

Guys, don’t do it, if people want to adopt an English name, so be it, but English teachers/bosses/customers who demand that Chinese people use English names for their convenience verge on racism, there’s no other way of putting it.

April 10, 2009 @ 4:11 pm | Comment

@Kevin

Ever heard of Zhukov? Then why is Zhang so difficult? Pinyin, after all, is simply a derivation of the Soviet romanisation system.

April 10, 2009 @ 4:16 pm | Comment

It’s surprising how dim some people can be. I mean bloody hell some Chinese and other Asian names couldn’t be easier. Wang. Mori. Park. Ok, for someone who isn’t schooled in pronouncing Chinese names you can make mistakes, but at least you have have a go.

I know I find many European surnames harder to pronounce!

As FOARP said, I have never really liked it when Chinese people asked me to call them “Steve” or “Jane”. I would if they wanted me to, but I preferred it to call them by their actual names. I would certainly never ask them to change their name for my sake.

April 10, 2009 @ 6:13 pm | Comment

@Raj – If only “Steve” or “Jane” were the names which people actually picked, you’re just as likely to have people being called “Windy”, “Eagle”, “Evons”, “Eason”, “Edison”, “Navy”, “Fandy”, “Simba” (and these were all ‘boys names’, apparently).

April 10, 2009 @ 8:54 pm | Comment

Bull Clinton….

We need to have a bullshit contest between the Chinese and the Americans to see which country is more full-of-shit. I think that the Americans will win because ultimately the Chinese know that they’re all full-of-shit and the Americans haven’t given up pretending

I’ve found that when Americans can’t pronounce some Chinese person’s name that they just capitulate in favor of a name that sounds pseudo-Chinese, like, “Ding Dong”.

70 year old American: “This is my wife “Ding Dong”. I met her while I was a Fulbright professor lecturing on Constitutionalism at a “top” university in China. “FART!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

April 10, 2009 @ 10:07 pm | Comment

Has any of the Chinese leadership slept with a Western woman?

April 10, 2009 @ 10:12 pm | Comment

The other day, a Chinese bloke asked me if I’ve “…ever been to Italian?”

I replied that I’ve been to “Nipples”.

April 10, 2009 @ 10:19 pm | Comment

Having made the opposite transition, from pinyin to Yale, I find the latter much more reasonable and comprehensible. You pointed out that you can see the difference “once you know how the Pinyin is pronounced,” but I think that’s the root of the problem: if you don’t know how it’s pronounced already, it’s really not much help.

April 10, 2009 @ 10:47 pm | Comment

@Thang Long

Are you a story writer of South Park?

April 10, 2009 @ 11:10 pm | Comment

Well, if you are going to a doctor’s office I could understand that hard-to-pronounce names could cause trouble since the nurse needs to call you in.
But to vote, don’t they just need to see the spelling of the name matches the registered name?

Comment #16:”Chinese names are much more difficult to deal with, because too many of them have the same name…
And the issue here is voting. How can you tell which Wu voted and which haven’t.”

So how does making them adopt English names help?
Do you think John Wu or Mary Li is more distinctive than Xiang Wu or Meili Li? Or are you suggesting them to change their family names all together?
Besides, you probably will find more “Betty Brown” than “Xiang Wu” in the phone books.

April 11, 2009 @ 1:20 am | Comment

Legislator Brown has got it all wrong. The adoption of “English names” by Asians for the benefit of the likes of Ms. Brown, which do not correspond to their original Asian names on legal documents, is what the root of the problem here, not the other way around

April 11, 2009 @ 1:28 am | Comment

The name game goes both ways of course. In urban centers, Canadian politicians have also Sinicized their western names into ridiculous three character Chinese derivations to pander to the ethnic Chinese vote. Little do they know that there is no such thing as a single Chinese community, and that the phonetic approximations game is a political minefield that only serves to pander to one linguistic community while alienating others.

April 11, 2009 @ 1:41 am | Comment

@Kevin – I always liked Yale, it’s Wade-Giles that’s a crime against linguistics!

April 11, 2009 @ 4:22 am | Comment

Surprised he didn’t try to require all immigrants to take their first names from the old testament.

April 11, 2009 @ 4:46 am | Comment

Call what people would like you to call them within your ability and ask however you’d like to be called w/o fuss. It’s just THAT SIMPLE. Why can’t a white dude have a Taoist-inspired name? If in English it would just sound Hippie! How cute is that today? Why can’t a gullible Chinese salary man be called Steve or Bobby-Joe? If he passionately desires to be called that and readily identifies with being that, then how wrong can that be?
I mean, if you meet a guy who just got naturalized as an American citizen last week and was only FOB 5 years ago, would you bulk at him because now he sincerely identifies himself as American?

April 11, 2009 @ 7:07 am | Comment

In defense of Pinyin, its strength precisely lies in the fact that it does not pander to Anglo-Saxon phonetics. Influenced by Esperanto, many Pinyin consonants have counterparts that are Slavic (such as the infamous c), German/Turkish (ü), Spanish (x, sort of), etc…Pinyin should be treated the same way as romanized Turkish: treat it like a new alphabet and don’t assume that the same phonetic rules for English would apply.

April 11, 2009 @ 8:54 am | Comment

We are just going backwards loop in time, that is all. Think of it like a magican making an elephant dissapear in front of an audience. Personally Chinese people ( as most of us know ) choose small names ever since that well icident where the kid had the big name. Having a “old” name is no big deal. Somebody should challenge the name ability of the US naming system.

April 11, 2009 @ 9:49 am | Comment

Didn’t Mao sleep with some western journalist?

Yes, we all know that Chinese pronounce English words perfectly!

April 11, 2009 @ 4:40 pm | Comment

This is ludicrous. If somebody’s name is good enough in one’s native language, it should be good enough in any language. My wife hasn’t used an English name since uni and in the past year or so I’ve all but stopped using a “Chinese name.” When people ask me what my name is, I tell them “Jeremiah” and then let them have fun with the pronunciation. Some can do it, many can’t, but my name is what it is.

April 11, 2009 @ 5:46 pm | Comment

One name that I’ve always had trouble pronouncing is “Bush”.

Every time I try to say the name “Bush” it comes out as “War Criminal”.

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/30158849

April 11, 2009 @ 6:16 pm | Comment

Some of my less worldly Chinese friends have trouble with “Richard,” I’m afraid. It comes out all sorts of ways.

April 11, 2009 @ 6:52 pm | Comment

“Friends say George W. Bush has struggled to slow down since trading the White House for an upper-class Dallas neighborhood.”

“Struggled to slow down…”

April 12, 2009 @ 4:37 pm | Comment

On the list of hard-to-pronounce names for non-native speakers, Chinese are far far down the list. I’d put Turkish and Sri Lankan closer the top. For example, for an English speaker, the Turkish PM’s name Recep Erdogan is closer to “Reejep Airdouan”.

My girlfriend is Turkish, and you should see the fun and games that ensue when telemarketers call regarding banks/credit cards (we live in Canada, but by accent I’d say most of the telemarketers are in the States somewhere). Not to long ago, one of the callers honestly said “Can I speak to…uhmm…I’m not even going to try to pronounce this last name!” Works for me, cause I know right away it’s nothing important! :)

April 12, 2009 @ 11:10 pm | Comment

i have a coworker who refuses to have a chinese name while here. i completely respect that. i however do have and use one. it was given to me by someone for whom i have only respect, for starters, so i didn’t take “awesome” (though writing that now i see i should have).

but more importantly than that, if i DIDN’T have a chinese name, when it was absolutely required to write my name (doctors office etc), id get some crap transliteration that i had no attachment to and that would probably change from palce to place depending on the whim of the writer. by having a chinese name it keeps things consistent and i don’t really mind making things easier for the people with whom i’m speaking especially when i feel that the name really is mine.

likewise, if Zhang Xiaofei wants to be called Zhang Xiaofei, take the effort to figure out how they say it and make an effort instead of being an asshole. I have to repeat my name a few times even with other native english speakers because i don’t really want to be called callum or kevin or kelly. you (rhetorical you) try for me. why not for mr/ms zhang?

April 13, 2009 @ 9:49 am | Comment

@FOARP (28). I semi-disagree with you. I work in a US company with a SZ office. I do find it almost ridiculously impossible for my US colleagues to be capable of remembering Chinese names (they seem to do okay with family names but first names they forget quicker than they are told). I am not sure why this is ….. it does not seem to be a pronunciation issues …. strictly a memorization issue. I am not condoning it, just accepting that it is one of those things that will never be corrected. Maybe it is a lack of respect. Maybe it is a lack of willingness or a close-mindedness. I think it is just plain old laziness and a lack of effort.

So most of the China staff do take English names …. they grasp that it is easier for the foreigners and they are more accepting and accommodating.

April 13, 2009 @ 4:41 pm | Comment

@Yokie – I’m okay with them doing it voluntarily if they want, but for the company to shove its oar in and say “from now on you will be called Toby”, well, that just catches in my craw.

April 13, 2009 @ 5:18 pm | Comment

“Maybe it is a lack of respect…”

Of course! So simple! How on Earth did it take fifty-two responses to figure out that our pronunciation problems are a manifestation of westerners’ disrespect for Chinese? I guess we can wrap up this conversation right here.

Another day, another Dollar, and a new Chinese ‘victim’ is born.

Turn the record over, would you please?

April 14, 2009 @ 3:15 am | Comment

@FOARP: agreed

@stuart: go away ….

April 14, 2009 @ 9:22 am | Comment

“@stuart: go away ….”

That depends. Have you turned the record over yet,Yoko? (that’s a little on-topic joke right there at the end – hope you appreciate it)

April 14, 2009 @ 11:49 am | Comment

I can sympathize with this topic. When I was growing up, some of the other kids often had difficulty pronouncing my name.

John Hildo

April 15, 2009 @ 12:49 pm | Comment

As far as I’m concerned if you have the right to live in a country you have the right to use your real name. For identification purposes, a name on its own isn’t sufficient in any case. I’m sure any polling booth in the United States will have at least 2 John Smiths turn up to vote.

April 15, 2009 @ 7:01 pm | Comment

Why do people have to use their name when voting anyways? Isn’t that supposed to be anonymous? Lots of Chinese people in China (or at least lots of young people in the cities) have translated their names into funny English names as ‘Apple’ and ‘Snow’..don’t know if that would help the American State.. People should definitely be able to keep their own name..and besides, how often does someone have to pronounce a lot of Chinese names? You probably run in to most of them while reading, unless you are very interested in Chinese people/culture/language/food…but in that case, the so called difficult pronounciation shouldn’t bother them;-)

April 15, 2009 @ 7:21 pm | Comment

where you can type your name on the line and then it tells you at the bottom how to right your name in chinese

April 24, 2009 @ 9:01 am | Comment

where you can type your name on the line and then it tells you at the bottom how to right your name in chinese and you would say it would be hard to write

April 24, 2009 @ 9:02 am | Comment

thatis aweird name is in it huh

April 24, 2009 @ 9:05 am | Comment

Slate: Why Chinese People Take English Names
http://www.slate.com/toolbar.aspx?action=print&id=2217001

“At my workplace [in Shanghai], which is 90% mainland Chinese, just about everyone I interacted with had an English name, usually selected or received in school. The names ran the gamut, from the standard (Jackie, Ivy) to the unusual (Sniper, King Kong), but what really struck me was how commonly people used them when addressing one another, even when the rest of the conversation was in Chinese.”

April 29, 2009 @ 1:51 pm | Comment

[...] using the English spelling, but it is not the proper name, really. Perhaps it’s just that [white/European] Americans can’t pronounce Chinese [...]

December 10, 2010 @ 1:56 pm | Pingback

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